In the not-too-distant past, politicians, secretaries of state and supervisors of elections prided themselves on increasing levels of voter participation. Stronger participation in our democracy said something unmistakably positive about the city, county or state; its citizens were engaged and involved, and the entire system of voting was better for it.
In 2008, the national voter participation rate barely increased over 2004, but two million more Latinos and two million more African Americans cast ballots than in the previous election. No matter where you might stand politically, here was something for which all Americans could be proud: stronger participation in the electoral process.
But ultimately there would be a different reaction to this good news regarding increased voter participation.
In legislative chambers and gubernatorial offices throughout the country, the response was to set in motion a coordinated effort to drive down participation among Latinos and African Americans. The laws and regulations also affect veterans, seniors and younger voters. Sixteen states crafted purge lists to remove voters from the rolls, which included many naturalized Latino citizens. Florida sent letters to those on the list requesting they prove their citizenship or be thrown off the voter lists.
Another four states – Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and Tennessee – have instituted proof of citizenship requirements. Nine states also adopted new voter ID laws, intentionally erecting barriers between voters and their rights.
The overall effect of these policies are chilling, and especially so for Latinos. Along with the additional steps, there are additional documentation and additional costs. The country no longer has the poll taxes of decades past, but the new restrictions have precisely the same effect.
According to a new Advancement Project report, as many as 10 million Latinos could possibly be disenfranchised in the 2012 general election as a result of these new restrictions that place a chill on voter registration and the participation of Latino voters in the upcoming election.
The report details the new laws policies and their discriminatory impact just as Latinos should be building upon the 2008 results and encouraging even greater participation in the election process.
Just two years ago, Latino citizens represented eight percent of America’s registered voters but more than 10 percent of the nation’s eligible voters. However, of 21.3 million eligible Latino voters, more than 14.5 million were either unregistered or did not vote in 2010. In addition, an estimated 3.7 million Latinos were expected to become eligible to become naturalized citizens since 2010.
An America that celebrates its democracy and its diversity is one that would be taking steps to ensure a greater percentage of Latinos, and elderly and veterans and young adults and African Americans, exercised their rights to vote. The barriers have drawn the attention of groups like the Advancement Project and its partners, such as LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Mi Familia Vota. Together, we have challenged many of the new restrictive laws and policies and the courts have begun to pay attention.
In Florida last week, the state agreed to stop its discriminatory purges after our lawsuit was filed. In Texas last month, a federal appellate court acted unanimously to block the state’s new voter ID law, saying the restrictions had the effect of placing “strict unforgiving burdens on the poor” and the state’s arguments in defense of the law were “unpersuasive, invalid, or both.” At press time, a state court in Pennsylvania could possibly also invalidate its discriminatory voter ID law.
I am confident that millions committed to justice and equality will overcome the coordinated and troubling actions of politicians attempting to limit the voting of American citizens.
Each voter must also make sure to protect their own vote. First of all, every voter must be registered to vote, and then must make sure to know where and when to go to the voting booths. Early voting starts very soon in many states. For more information about how to register to vote you can call the local election supervisor and to find out where to go vote, visit the following webpage: http://vote.colorofchange.org/
No matter which candidates we support locally or nationally, we can all recognize the benefit of ensuring not only greater voter participation, but also equality in our democracy. Anything less would be un-American.
The Spanish version of this Op-Ed can be found at La Opinión.
Katherine Culliton-González is a Senior Attorney and Director of Voter Protection for Advancement Project, where she leads a highly-qualified team in litigation, policy, coalition-building, voter education and community empowerment strategies to protect fundamental voting rights.
A former Fulbright Scholar, she taught human rights law in Chile (1993-1994), and among other awards, she graduated as Valedictorian of the Washington College of Law of American University in 1993. She is the author of a series of law review articles and other publications, written in English and Spanish, which have been used to protect civil and human rights in the Americas.